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Fat Gene Variation Linked to Less Brain Tissue, Alzheimer's Risk

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Individuals, who possess a variation of the fat gene FTO, are also found to have less brain tissue that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, revealed in a study that mapped brain volume using MRI as part of the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Researchers call the link between the “bad” version of the fat gene and loss of brain tissue, “mysterious”.

Senior study author Paul Thompson, a UCLA professor of neurology says, "The results are curious. If you have the bad FTO gene, your weight affects your brain adversely in terms of tissue loss," he said. "If you don't carry FTO, higher body weight doesn't translate into brain deficits; in fact, it has nothing to do with it. This is a very mysterious, widespread gene."

Researchers, using magnetic resonance imaging measured brain volume differences in 206 healthy elderly subjects from 58 sites across the Unites States as part of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. The consistently found less brain tissue in study participants who possess the FTO gene variation, specifically in the frontal and occipital (back) lobes of the brain, compared to individuals who are non-carriers of the “fat gene” allele.

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The areas of the brain affected by the fat gene variation are responsible for vision and perception (occipital), while the frontal lobe controls emotions, perception, and motor skills, memory and language, and judgment.

"This is a shocking finding. Any loss of brain tissue puts you at greater risk for functional decline,” explains Thompson who is also a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute and the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging."The risk gene divides the world into two camps ― those who have the FTO allele and those who don't."

Though the news is shocking, Thompson says the effects of brain loss can be reversed. "Half of the world carries this dangerous gene. But a healthy lifestyle will counteract the risk of brain loss, whether you carry the gene or not. So it's vital to boost your brain health by being physically active and eating a balanced diet.”

The researchers say the findings can help with the development of drugs that can combat the effects of aging. The public health message is that exercise and good dietary habits can combat the effect of the fat gene variation. Following a healthy lifestyle can keep brain tissue intact and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of your genes.

UCLA Newsroom